Senator Says She’ll Vote No on Stephen Dickson

Cantwell says serious questions about Dickson’s leadership have emerged.

Maria Cantwell
Cantwell said Dickson repeatedly sought to minimize his role in this incident.cantwell.senate.gov

Just ahead of tomorrow’s scheduled confirmation vote for Stephen Dickson to become the next administrator of the FAA, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation said she will not support Dickson’s nomination. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) is already on record with his no vote on Steve Dickson.

In a statement, Cantwell said she at first planned to support Dickson based upon his long careers in both the U.S. Air Force and at Delta Air Lines. “But at this time of unprecedented challenges involving aviation safety, we also need to be absolutely certain that the person chosen to lead the FAA has a clean record on safety and the ability to help restore the public’s trust in the FAA. Unfortunately, information brought to our committee in recent weeks calls into question the safety culture that existed under Mr. Dickson that allowed a safety whistleblower to be retaliated against. The nominee’s lack of candor about the issue was also troubling.” Until his retirement last year from Delta, Stephen Dickson served as that airline’s senior vice president of flight operations.

The whistleblower referred to in Cantwell's statement is a Delta Boeing 777 First Officer, Karlene Petitt, who raised safety issues about aspects of the airline's operations in an Air 21 report she jointly filed in 2016 with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the FAA. Petitt has sued Delta in a pending Department of Labor administrative action claiming the airline retaliated against her once the airline read her report.

In a story that ran last week at Flying, Dickson stood by his earlier decision to refer Petitt to a Delta-hired psychiatrist once the report had been read. He said Petitt's statements and behavior, "raised legitimate questions about her fitness to fly." The Delta psychiatrist diagnosed Petitt as bipolar which automatically disqualified her from flying. Subsequent mental health exams found no basis for the bipolar diagnosis and returned Petitt to flying status some 18 months after she was grounded.

Cantwell said the written answers Dickson provided the committee about the incident showed he “repeatedly sought to minimize his role in this extremely troubling episode.” Dickson was not named in the OSHA suit, but was in charge of operational personnel at the time of the incident. “However, the written record produced by First Officer Petitt and her legal team contradicts the picture Mr. Dickson has sought to paint of minimal involvement,” Cantwell said. “Given Mr. Dickson’s oversight of these matters raises serious questions about his leadership and therefore I will not support his nomination.”

Politico Tuesday morning reported that the other Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee are leaning toward no votes on Dickson, while the Republicans on the committee are expected to vote for confirmation.